I didn’t set out in June to photograph flowers all summer. Flowers are lovely, of course, like flags commemorating nature. But they haven’t especially appealed to me as a subject before. As the summer progressed, however, I noticed them more and more. Everywhere I went, the parks — as well as roadsides, yards and random fields — were resplendent in colorful blossoms.
“Earth laughs in flowers,” wrote Emerson, and we smile along with them, enchanted.
Here I present to you, dear reader, a summer bouquet gleaned from my wanderings: A personal and highly subjective award ceremony for flowers from parks all over the metropolitan region, from the Kettle Moraine to the Lakeshore and many points in between. I hope you’ll leave a comment with your own personal picks for favorite flower spots.
Most Exotic Cultivated Flower of the Summer
This award goes to the lobster claw at Mitchell Park Conservatory. Photographing flowers in a conservatory is like shooting ducks in a barrel. But I seldom pass up an opportunity to revisit the Domes!
Despite the closure in 2014 due to structural instability, attendance at the iconic and unique structures has rebounded. I had to jostle among almost 2,200 other visitors the day I went.
Largest Single Blossom
The award for the largest single blossom goes to this pink hibiscus that I found in Alice’s Garden, which is an urban farm located in Johnson’s Park near Fond du Lac and North. The gardens ruled this category. So did the hibiscus. While I didn’t carry around a tape measure, I believe the pink below edged out a spectacular array of scarlet hibiscus at Boerner Botanical Gardens.
It was no contest as far as roses go, though. Boerner, which is located in Whitnall Park, is justly renowned for its rose garden. “Are the roses not…excessive?” writes poet Mary Oliver. “Each flower is small and lovely, but in their sheer and silent abundance the roses become an immutable force, as though the work of…roses was to make to make sure that all of us…may be, for a while, struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy.”
The showiest wildflower was — well, it’s actually and appropriately called the showy lady’s slipper orchid, aka the queen’s lady’s slipper. The rare native orchid is very picky about its habitat, which is shrinking nationally. You can see it, as I did, on the special occasions (in June and July) when the Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area is opened to the public. The largest intact wetland in Southeastern Wisconsin, it is located off of Highway 33 near Saukville in Ozaukee County.
Most Intriguing Interplay Between Flowers and an Architectural Structure
This award goes to Kadish Park, a narrow, steeply-sloped site squeezed between North Avenue and Commerce Street in the Brewer’s Hill neighborhood. Kadish has not only one of the most dramatic staircases anywhere, but also an outdoor amphitheater featuring Shakespearean plays and one of the best views of downtown Milwaukee in the city.
Most Outrageously Magenta Bergamot
This award goes to Lake Park, one of Milwaukee’s Olmsted-designed flagship parks. Also known as bee balm for its effect on those prodigious pollinators, bergamot comes in a variety of colors and grows just about everywhere. The award for most bergamot on a single hillside would be hard to assign, there being numerous potential candidates, but see Hartung Park, below.
Most Surprising New Find
This was at Holler Park, a neighborhood park not far from the airport. There I found a number of meadows full of intensely hued brown-eyed Susans, cozied up to a small pond surrounded by lovely woodland.
Most Unusual and Unexpected Wildflower
The most unusual and unexpected wildflower I came across all summer was the Indian Plantain at the Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha. It grows taller than I am and filled an entire hillside meadow in a dense, forest-like stand.
Most Lavish Display of Jewelweed
It’s less flashy than most flowers, but I’ve always loved jewelweed, with its delicate orange blossoms that seem to glow in the largely gloomy wetland habitats it favors. I’ve seen it in many places but Retzer has, hands down, the most lavish display of jewelweed I’ve ever come across. No photograph can do it justice!
Most Disturbing Display of Floral Power
Not every flower to be found in our urban wilderness is desirable. Some invasive species, like Dame’s rocket, camouflage their aggression with beautiful blossoms. Others, though, can appear as destructive as they really are to native species. Buckthorn and garlic mustard, bad as they can be, take a back seat to this medieval-looking phalanx of spiky teasel, which crowds both sides of Swan Boulevard in the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa.
Most Explosive Patch of Purple Prairie Clover
This was replicated repeatedly this summer throughout Lakeshore State Park, which is located on a peninsula jutting into the outer harbor just off of the Summerfest grounds. You can reach it on foot or bike via a bridge next to Discovery World or park along the water behind the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. Along with the many prairie wildflowers, look for the family of foxes while you’re there.
Largest, Most Ostentatious and Utterly Amazing Overall Presentation of Wildflowers Anywhere
And the grand prize… drumroll please…goes to the hilltop at Hartung Park, which straddles the Milwaukee/Wauwatosa border adjacent to the Menomonee River Parkway. Not bad for a park built atop an abandoned quarry.
But wait! There’s more. The flowers at Hartung Park continue beyond the edge of the hilltop and down the hillsides in every direction. I couldn’t possibly get it all into one photograph. Nor could I show how it changes over the course of the summer, an ever-shifting, multi-hued floral tapestry with black-eyed and brown-eyed Susans, yellow and purple coneflowers, bergamot, sweet clover, nodding wild onion, Queen Anne’s lace and many others I can’t name.
Walt Whitman claimed, “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, or even vagueness — ignorance, credulity — helps your enjoyment of these things.” While I do not profess willful ignorance, I will be the first to confess that I am woefully inept at naming flowers. That I am able to produce names for you can be attributed in part to the power of Google. When in doubt, however, I turned to experts far more knowledgeable than I, to whom I am grateful.
I hope these “award-winning” selections will encourage you to visit your favorite parks. Autumn flowers are on their way. Meanwhile, you can see more of my summer bouquet, including additional parks, at Flickr.